How To Pick The Best Paid Newsletter Platform / My Substack Review
Before I explain how you can pick the best newsletter platform for you, we need to address the big elephant in the room that challenges the fundamental premise of this post…
Substack Is Not A Paid Newsletter Platform
On the surface, Substack looks like a paid newsletter platform.
But on a deeper level, it’s no more a newsletter platform then Facebook is a directory of students at Harvard.
Yes, Substack started off with paid newsletters, but it and other software companies like it have become something much more…
The Rise Of The Creator Platform Company
Substack has many similarities to a handful of other platforms that seem to be copying each other’s functionalities and competing to serve the same creators. Those companies include:
Substack (created the paid newsletter niche)
Beehiiv (new kid on the block)
Ghost (open source alternative)
ConvertKit (legacy email marketing company that pivoted)
Memberful (WordPress plugin)
Patreon (started off enabling donations to creators)
X (recently released paid subscriber feature)
Medium (recently added newsletters for each creator)
Through these companies, we can see that the players seem to fall into a few categories:
New companies (i.e., Beehiiv, Substack, Memberful)
Social platforms entering the space (i.e., X, Medium, and Youtube)
Email marketing companies entering the space (i.e., Convert Kit)
Once you add up all of the features that these companies are developing, it becomes clear that newsletters are just the first distribution channel for content among many. For example, Substack now makes it easy to start a paid podcast and also get new readers via its mobile app.
Collectively, these creator platforms are creating a new category of software based on:
Helping creators (i.e., musicians, thought leaders, podcasters, video makers, etc.)
Express, promote, and monetize their creative work
In a way that is creator-friendly
Ultimately, these platforms aim to be the operating system for creators so that they can focus on what they do best and leave everything else that they can to the platform.
This new category of platforms is a big deal…
Creator Platforms Change Everything
The advent of creator platforms marks the beginning of a new paradigm for content on the internet.
Previously, social media companies provided free traffic in return for free content. As a result, creators could not:
Move their following to another platform
Directly make money from their content
Have full control over their speech (i.e., censorship)
Know their customer
With creator platforms, all of these are inverted.
As a result of this shift, new possibilities emerge:
Creators don’t have to deliver their work through an algorithmic newsfeed fine-tuned for capturing attention rather than providing value.
Furthermore, creators don’t have to make a living giving away their content and upselling something else.
This means that they can focus more on what they love and are great at.
This means that they can create more and better content.
This means the end of the starving artist. It means fewer creators giving up creative work in school in order to do higher-paying jobs they don’t want to do. It also means fewer creators having to take side jobs to make ends meet.
More and better creative work improves the quality of art, entertainment, news, happiness, education, and many other fields worldwide.
To make the gravity of the shift more concrete…
Imagine getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn things that change your life and then sharing what you learn with others so it changes their lives.
That’s what it will mean for many millions of thought leaders over time.
Imagine a world where we aren’t spoon-fed a diet of low-calorie, misleading, clickbait content but instead are surrounded by knowledge that brings out the best version of ourselves—content that makes us feel more alive or teaches us something critical.
That’s what it will mean for billions of people who consume what creators make.
This is all a big deal.
To switch into the creator economy though, we creators need to decide what creator platform we will use. Given the huge role these platforms play, this is a big decision. It’s like choosing someone to marry.
Rather than just sharing a comparison chart that will become outdated in a month, I will share the bigger picture first in order to facilitate a better decision…
Today’s Game Plan
For Free Subscribers
Key features in creator platforms. You can’t make a decision without knowing what the features are beyond a paid newsletter, and why they’re important.
What makes creator platforms unique. Even if social media companies had all of the same features as creator platforms, they would still be very different.
The blurring lines between social media and creator platforms. What do we make of the fact that social media companies are becoming creator-friendly and creator platforms are adding social media features?
For Paid Subscribers
My breakdown of the defining advantages and disadvantages of each platform
My analysis of how you can make the best decision depending on your goals
My honest review of Substack after 90 days
Let’s jump in…
The Growing Feature Set Of An Emerging Industry
The feature set of these companies seems to fall into four categories:
Let’s explore each of these one-by-one…
These companies now offer creators on its platform multiple distribution channels:
Podcast (via RSS feed)
Social media (Notes / App)
The underlying idea seems to be that these platforms aren’t wedded to any distribution channel, and they want to maximize distribution for creators in general.
It also becomes clear that a subscription is just the first monetization strategy. Other strategies include:
Paid one-on-one calls. I recently saw that one Substack newsletter gave me the ability to have a paid one-on-one call with the creator. This program seems to be in beta.
Advertising share. YouTube and X share advertising revenue with creators.
E-commerce. ConvertKit helps you to sell one-off products.
Beyond offering a newsletter and blog, other features that enable expression include:
Detailed analytics on posts, monetization, and audience
Chat. Substack released a Chat feature in 2022 allowing creators to host conversations with their audience.
Live streaming. X offers live streaming. Musk has been actively testing and showcasing this feature, so it seems to be a priority.
Audio chats. Musk seems to be prioritizing this feature as well.
Direct messaging. X recently announced subscriber-only DMs.
Design (several). Increasing ability to customize the layout, fonts, colors, and design of the site and emails.
AI functionality. Beehiiv recently released AI functionality in the text editor.
Front page with inbox/newsfeed. Substack released an app this year, and their desktop website has an inbox. This makes them similar to a social network in two ways. First, it makes Substack the home page rather than an individual creator. Second, it shows a feed of newsletters that readers are subscribed to.
More specifically, newsletters can recommend each other such that after a user signs up for their newsletter, that user is shown the recommended newsletters and can sign up with one click. Here’s an example of what it looks like…
I didn’t get the significance of this feature until I heard many newsletters say it was their #1 way of getting new subscribers.
The Big Picture
I didn’t get the full significance of the Creator Network until I saw a post from ConvertKit. In it, they introduce the idea of the million-subscriber newsletter flywheel…
These promotion features can work in tandem with each other:
Creators can earn money by accepting sponsorships that the platform gets them.
Creators can reinvest that money by sponsoring other newsletters.
This then gives them more subscribers.
This then increases how much they can charge for sponsorships.
And so on…
The following quote from newsletter creator Sahil Bloom explains how the Flywheel gets him 50,000 new subscribers per month:
I’ve been able to grow my list at a rate of 50,000 subscribers per month from Free Recommendations. New subscribers see Brand Sponsor ads which generate income that I reinvest in other creators’ newsletters with Paid Recommendations. It’s crazy how many people are being added to my newsletter now!
—Sahil Bloom, Founder of The Curiosity Chronicle
Now that you have an understanding of the growing feature set of this industry and the players, let’s go to a deeper level and examine what else makes this niche unique…
The Creator-First Logic
While creator platforms are adding social media features, they’re still fundamentally different than other social media networks.
In other words, even if creator platforms had all of the same features as social media companies, they wouldn’t necessarily be social media companies. And vice-versa.
There’s something deeper, and here’s what it is…
With social media platforms, the creator is the product. In the creator platforms, the creator is the customer.
As a result of this logic, social media networks have spent the last 15 years establishing the following norms:
No monetization. Most (except YouTube and Medium) do not pay creators a livable wage.
Limited portability. This makes it hard for creators to move their followers off the site.
Content moderation. Social networks have increasingly come under pressure to moderate their content since 2016.
Front page. Social networks have endeavored to make themselves the front page that people habitually visit to access creator content.
In-feed advertising. Social media companies monetize with advertising, and to maximize that model, they set up the algorithmic newsfeed to optimize for keeping people on the site as long as possible so they can see more ads.
Algorithmic news feeds. At first, social media companies showed all of the content of everyone you followed. But, over time, they all switched to an algorithmic news feed to mitigate information overwhelm.
For many years, both consumers and creators accepted these terms. Creators appreciated the audience. Consumers appreciated the content.
Sure, there were a few thought leaders who presciently understood the bad deal for creators (Who Owns the Future? in 2013) and the perils of social media content on consumers (Deep Work in 2016). But most media and the culture more broadly celebrated almost all consumer tech.
Then things started to change…
Ads proliferation. News feeds became fully loaded with ads as social media companies switched from growth to monetization.
Censorship. After Trump was elected, platforms censored content as governments feared misinformation. Then, content started being censored more and more for safety and other reasons.
Low-quality clickbait content. Creators aren’t incentivized to create their best work through algorithmic newsfeeds and lack of monetization. Traditional media lost credibility as it lowered the quality of its content in order to earn enough money to survive an ever-smaller share of the online advertising market.
Addiction. This is important as research comes out showing a link between social media use and anxiety and depression.
Consumers willing to pay for content subscriptions. People got fed up enough that they started paying for content in order to eliminate advertising and get higher quality.
In this context, creators and consumers wanted something new. And creator platforms were the answer.
Bottom line: Today’s creators want the following:
Freedom to say what they want
Direct access to their customers
Portability of customer contact info and subscriptions
Monetization so creators can make a living purely on creating
Reach to a wider market beyond their current fans
However, something interesting has been happening in the last few years.
While the creator industry was created in opposition to social media, the lines are blurring over time…
The Blurring Of The Boundary Between Social Media And The Creator Industry
First, the creator platforms are copying the features of social media:
Short-form content (In early 2023, Substack released Notes. The functionality was similar enough to X that Musk cut off API access to Substack and devalued links to Substack newsletters from X.)
Second, the creator platforms may come under increasing pressure to moderate their content as they become larger and as contested, contentious elections happen.
Many social media companies were pro-free speech and had minimal content moderation when they were the size of Substack, Beehiiv, etc. However, once they became mainstream enough that they could impact elections, the government and nonprofits (ADL) pushed them to moderate content. So, yes, creator platforms are staying hands-off for the moment. But, if they become larger, this will likely change. There is a fascinating and heated interview with Chris Best, a cofounder of Substack, and journalist Nilay Patel that debates this point:
Third, social media companies are copying creator platforms…
YouTube, Apple Podcast, and X empower creators to offer paid subscriptions.
Facebook even released a platform for creators that ultimately failed, but if history is our teacher, we may see them try again and again until they get it right.
Medium and Twitter now provide creators with the email addresses of their paid subscribers.
Fourth, Substack and Beehiiv have each raised $10M+.
This means that they will ultimately be under pressure to monetize at a deeper level in order to provide a return for their investors, just as the social networks were after years of growth and zero monetization. For example, social networks had no advertising for many years until that became a central feature of their platform.
As the lines between social media and creator platforms blur, a few risks and opportunities emerge…
Future Risks, Opportunities, And Predictions
Unpredictable platform changes on social media. YouTube is a singular example of a social media platform that has mastered win-win creator monetization. They’ve paid out billions of dollars to creators which dwarfs the payout of every other social media platform and creator platform combined by several orders of magnitude. At the same time, your audience is on YouTube and is not portable. This means you are at the whim of unpredictable changes to the platform that could destroy your business.
Social media traffic windfall. The largest active audiences live on social media platforms by many orders of magnitude. Therefore, if a social media platform decides to provide algorithm juice, it could really help a creator get from zero to one very rapidly.
And, I anticipate they will.
At an underlying level, social media companies are competing for the attention of consumers in order to bring in advertising dollars. But, in order to get that attention, they need creators to create their best content on their platforms.
In a world with social media companies competing against each other, many creators create the same content and post it on multiple platforms. But, if creators move into a paradigm of monetizing their content and putting their best content behind a paywall, this may pose an existential threat to social networks.
If social media companies start to lose big creators and have less traffic, I could see them starting to move into the creator space in a much bigger way.
Cancelled features. Creator revenue is a negligible part of social network revenue, and it could even challenge their fundamental business model. So, they don’t quite have the immediate incentive to be creator-friendly. Therefore, I am personally not going to go with a social media monetization approach until it is clear that this is a core part of their company and model.
Creators may use multiple creator platforms. In the world of social media, it is common for creators to use multiple social platforms. I wonder if something similar will happen with creator platforms in order for creators to attract a larger market once they saturate the audience of their current creator platform.
Creator platforms may become what they fought against. As platforms release their own centralized apps and enable advertising, they play with fire. They create incentives for the conditions they were trying to avoid.
Now that you have context, you can see why picking the best creator platform is hard.
The puck is moving as these companies rapidly ship new features while copying other features. And when we make a choice over which platform to go with, we aren’t just making a choice for now; we are making a choice for years to come.
I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer on which platform is the best because creators have different needs and goals. But what I can offer is a helpful set of things to consider to guide your decision…
Creator Platform Comparison (for paid subscribers)
As I mentioned, the creator platforms are rapidly copying each other so a comparison chart would quickly become outdated.
Instead, what I’ll provide here are defining advantages and disadvantages of the core creator tool platforms so you can decide what’s best for you: